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The APHA Public Health Newswire originally published a version of this article which can be found here.

Geographic Information System (GIS) offers a powerful tool that can be used to measure and communicate the complexities of health equity. This technology allows us to visualize social factors, such as poverty and education levels, which are integral in understanding health disparities. By combining data from multiple sources, GIS helps us gain insights into how different communities are affected by health inequities — and allows us to identify potential solutions.

How can GIS help us understand health equity?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines health equity as "attaining the highest level of health for all people […] valuing everyone equally with focused and ongoing societal efforts to address avoidable inequalities, historical and contemporary injustices, and the elimination of health and health care disparities." GIS makes it possible to tackle these inequalities and shortfalls empirically. Purpose-built tools allow us to layer different variables, such as population density and access to medical care, onto maps to identify underlying patterns of health equity in a given area. For example, by visualizing data related to access to medical care and other social determinants of health, we can begin to identify areas where people have limited or no access to healthcare services. This information can then be used to inform public policy decisions related to healthcare services and investments which is most important in underserved communities where resources are limited.

Assessing risk variables and SDOH metrics to advance equity

One of the essential factors in determining someone's health is their location. Where we live, work, and play can significantly impact our health and well-being. This is why GIS and mapping offer such valuable tools for public health research and decision-making. Geography and social determinants of health reflect the risks and circumstances that directly impact health outcomes: housing, transportation, education, and access to healthy food and safe neighborhoods. By mapping and measuring health, economic, and population data, we can identify areas where interventions are needed to improve population health. With GIS, we can see patterns and relationships that would be otherwise invisible, which is essential for developing targeted interventions to improve the health of communities.

GIS technology allows us to look at risk factors and social determinants of health outcomes in empirical and visual frameworks. As a result, we can shine a spotlight on health equity — mapping community patterns and trends using available datasets. For example, we can draw on health and economic data to evaluate health equity factors: including health risks, disability status, homelessness, socioeconomic risks, housing, and food security, access to essential services, transportation availability, racial and demographic records, immigration trends, and many other data points.

GIS improves communication and builds trust

Communities, health systems, and supporting organizations increasingly turn to GIS solutions to better quantify, visualize, and map health inequalities across and within regions and municipalities. In addition, these data visualizations serve a double role in making the information accessible as a public communications tool — serving up info in ways that build trust, transparency, and engagement with the public.

Modern GIS tools offer more than mapping and data reporting for research purposes. Dashboards, story maps, and spatial analytics help make GIS data compelling. In addition, the breadth of new reporting tools allows for real-time data collection and analysis. For example, in our work for state and local authorities during the pandemic, Maximus consultants relied heavily on operational dashboards that proved invaluable in helping public health officials determine resource allocation based on rapidly evolving circumstances.

Local governments and their partners can employ GIS to visualize and examine connections across geography and political boundaries — mapping relationships between health outcomes and causal factors. For example, GIS solutions can help zero in on stubborn problems by answering questions empirically: Why do some communities have lower measles vaccination rates than neighboring areas? Does a given school zoning district have fresh produce markets or is the district at higher risk of food insecurity and childhood obesity?

GIS is an indispensable part of a pragmatic, holistic approach to improving public health outcomes

When it comes to addressing health equities, data is essential. By understanding the demographics of a community and the risk factors they face, we can identify areas where intervention is needed. However, data alone is not enough. We also need to consider the lived experiences of people within a community and how they interact with the systems in place. Only by taking a holistic approach will we be able to create lasting change and ensure that everyone has an opportunity for a healthy life. Using GIS and geospatial data, public health professionals can identify trends and patterns contributing to health inequity and create targeted interventions that address the underlying causes. With this information, we can make informed decisions and design strategic interventions that are more effective in acheiving  health equity. Ultimately, GIS offers indispensable tools to guide decision-making and promote  improved outcomes and health equity. In the coming years, we will see GIS play an increasingly important role in improving population health.

Want to learn more? We've produced a story map that describes the integration of social epidemiology and GIS technology in addressing inequalities in health outcomes.

The Maximus Center for Health Innovation offers programs and services to help governments respond to population health needs and emerging public health threats and improve public health infrastructure.